Unlike most of North America, Newfoundland and Labrador have few agricultural
communities. The growing season is short, and the soil relatively poor when
compared to the other British North American colonies, all of which depended
heavily upon agriculture during their early history. Furthermore, Newfoundland
settlers quickly realized that they could achieve a higher standard of living
by concentrating their labour upon fishing, and importing food from other
places. Until 1813 the government officially prohibited fencing in land for
farming since it threatened the availability of land for the fishery, but in
practice not much was done to discourage the small efforts at agriculture.
Many English and Irish settlers came from farming areas, and Newfoundlanders
have always grown a few crops near their homes. In the 18th and 19th centuries
most households had gardens to supplement families' food, and many had livestock
for milk, meat and wool - but people fished for a living and did not sell much
farm produce. When families grew more food than they needed, the absence of
effective transportation systems made getting surplus crops to market difficult,
except in areas close to towns.
The early 19th century saw the first attempts by the government to encourage
agriculture as a way to replace imports with local produce, and provide for
fishing families that might otherwise go on government relief during the
periodic depressions in the fishery. The existence in St. John's of an
increasingly large market for fresh milk, meat, vegetables and hay, made
farming possible along the outskirts of the town. Many politically influential
people, such as the Liberal reformer and Speaker of the Assembly William Carson,
owned farms themselves and encouraged the government to support agriculture.
The government built roads near St. John's, such as Topsail Road, for example,
in large part to encourage agriculture. Parts of Conception Bay, and the west
coast of the island, which had both good land and a substantial local
population, also developed agriculture in the 19th century. Despite the growth
in acreage under cultivation, farms were scattered along the margins of fishing
harbours and few agricultural "communities" emerged.
Two notable exceptions were Goulds and Kilbride, situated along the road from
St. John's to Bay Bulls. In the mid-19th century people began to clear the good
agricultural land that was now accessible to St. John's by road. Farmers in
this area brought vegetables and milk to St. John's by cart to sell to a
merchant or to sell door-to-door. Even here, many families could not make a
living though farming alone, and many of these farmers also fished part of
the year out of Petty Harbour - Goulds was one of the few places in 19th
century Newfoundland not on the coast. As the population grew, residents
built a church and school, and started to see themselves as a "community."
Other farming communities were started with aid from the state. The government
used bonuses for clearing land and subsidized livestock to encourage the
creation of farming communities. In the 1860s farmers settled Eastport,
Happy Adventure and Musgravetown. A similar agricultural settlement program
in the 1880s led to the establishment of Blaketown, near Conception Bay.
The Robert Bond administration at the beginning of the 20th century hoped
to establish farming at Whitbourne. While each of these communities put
additional acres under cultivation, the distance from markets limited their
success. The next great effort to found farming communities had to wait
until the economic crisis of the 1930s.
The Great Depression encouraged governments in many countries to try to turn
some of the urban unemployed into self-sufficient farmers. Newfoundland was
no exception. A voluntary society planned agricultural communities in
Newfoundland's interior as a way to employ some of St. John's poor. The
Commission of Government, particularly Commissioner for Public Utilities
Thomas Lodge, saw much promise in this scheme, and took over the program.
Between 1934 and 1942 the Commission of Government's land settlement scheme
sponsored the creation of eight farming communities. During the life of the
program, about 365 families were relocated from St. John's and depressed
fishing communities, to areas that had could potentially be farmed. While
the settlers cleared land, and built houses and public buildings such as
a school, the government provided provisions, tools and construction
material. Lodge hoped that once the first settlement, named Markland,
was up and running, its administrators would go on to found other farm
|Markland Homestead, ca. 1935.
School teacher Claire Cochius, standing in front of one of the first Markland homesteads.
Courtesy of Mr. John Gosse.
Lodge wanted the program to do more than encourage the urban unemployed and
fishing families to grow their own food and thus be self-sufficient, he hoped
it would spark a cultural change among Newfoundlanders. The Commission thought
Newfoundlanders depended upon the government too much, and wanted to make
these people more self-reliant through the "morally-beneficial" work of
tending the land. So Markland was a social experiment as much as a farming
community. Members of the community worked on communal plots of land and
shared the profit. Later, individual farms were developed, but the Commission
hoped that the first settlement would provide everyone with a model of civic
behaviour. The Commission wanted all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to work
for the good of their whole community, rather than depend upon the government
to provide roads, wharves and public facilities.
Markland was a social experiment in another way as well. The Commission of
Government wanted to end the denominational school system in Newfoundland,
which it felt led to wasteful duplication of facilities. It failed to change
the system in established communities but provided an alternative school in
its new model community. Children in Markland were educated in a
nondenominational folk school. That school's curriculum included skills such
as carpentry and animal husbandry and academic subjects that were selected
for the role they might make in remaking Newfoundland's culture such as
geography and civics. This model was not followed in other communities,
and eventually the school was integrated into the denominational school
||Markland Schoolchildren, ca. 1935.
Markland boys and girls participated in a co-ed club, similar to Guides and Scouts, called the Beothuks.
Courtesy of Mr. John Gosse.
Markland was expensive for the government, and farmers were slow to produce
enough crops to make themselves self-sufficient. Despite weaknesses of the
Markland experiment, the Commission opened a series of other farming
communities, Haricot, Lourdes, Brown's Arm, Midland, Sanderingham, Winterland
and Point au Mal. The land settlement program proved to be an expensive and
futile attempt to provide an alternative to the fishery, and many of the
settlers drifted back to the fishery or had to continue to be supported by
the government. When American military spending gave the settlers opportunities
for wage-paying jobs, many of the farmers voted with their feet and took jobs
on the bases.
The land settlement program did not live up to the government's unrealistic
expectations. The government had to support settlers much longer than intended,
and farm output remained low. The authoritarian attitude of administrators and
the requirement for settlers to work on communal farms also encouraged dissent
among residents. Geographer Gordon Handcock suggests that the individualism
among Markland residents, which the land settlement scheme was intended to
counter, proved longer lasting than the Commission. He argues the settlers
never became a community, but remained little more than a collection of houses.
(Handcock 148.) The Commission abandoned the program in 1942, although it
established the farming community of Cormack, near the island's west coast,
after the second world war to provide employment to returning veterans. Some
farming in these communities continued during the rest of the century, but the
expensive program achieved neither an economic nor a cultural change in the
nature of Newfoundland.
|Markland community barn, ca. 1935.
Claire Cochius standing in front of Markland's community barn.
Courtesy of Mr. John Gosse.
After Newfoundland's union with Canada the acreage under cultivation declined,
and few new areas were opened to farming. Lethbridge, in Bonavista Bay, is one
example of an area that came under cultivation after road construction in the
area. While there are still many profitable farms and agriculture contributes
substantially to the provincial economy, farming "communities" are largely a
thing of the past. Land developers found that farmland could be easily
subdivided into residential building lots, and sold at a profit. By the
end of the 20th century, urban sprawl in the St. John's area took much
farm land out of production, and while farms near St. John's still produce
crops - they are not really farming communities. Even Goulds, in which the
government had protected agricultural land from development, residential
housing for people working in St. John's has grown to the point in which
farmers are a minority of people in the town.
©2000, Jeff A. Webb